Philippe Gilbert: The five races that changed my life

'Making people happy is more important to me than winning'

Philippe Gilbert has won almost everything there is to win as a one-day specialist. Now, at the age of 35, he can look back at a career full of highlights, including Monuments, a world title, and countless other victories. As part of Cyclingnews' Belgian week, we sat down with the Quick-Step Floors rider to talk about the five races that meant the most to him. You'll find a few surprises – the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold, and the World Championships are not included – but what'll you hopefully discover is a nostalgic rider who hasn't let success change him. Philippe Gilbert, the old romantic.

Tour de l'Avenir 2003, stage 9

So the first thing you'll probably want to know is why I've not selected the Worlds, Flanders or Amstel. There are two reasons. The first is that I wanted to start at the beginning of my career and go from there. I don't know about other riders but for me the first victories were always the nicest, and I've chosen races I've won because of the emotional attachment that they've given me and other people. For me, that last point is really important. I race for beautiful emotions. For me it's not always about the most prestigious, it's about the emotions, and sometimes I think you forget the first times.
This particular victory was my first professional win and I was at FDJ at the time. Bradley Wiggins was on the team and he won the prologue. We had Benoît Vaugrenard in second. Then the next day we were pulling and I finished third, then second, fifteenth, thirteenth, sixth, fourth, seventh and then finally I won on stage 9 into Solliès-Ville, ahead of Samuel Dumoulin. I was fourth on GC and chasing stages but this stage finished with an uphill finale. It was actually the same sort of finish on which I've won a lot of races. I remember Euskaltel did a lot of work leading into the climb because they had the race lead, but I was the strongest. In a way, it was the blueprint for the rest of my career.

When I was coming through the ranks in Belgium I was seen as a one-day specialist. I was never out of the top-five in the younger ranks and the hilly uphill finishes always suited me. I was top-five in U23 Flanders one year but probably should have won. I think that there were four of us coming to the finish together and it was a sprint but I took fourth. Nick Nuyens won that race but Avenir changed things for me a lot. It's a very different race to the one it is now. Back then it was ridden by pro riders but it was limited to riders under 25. It was a test for many of us but you still had guys from the Tour there. Thomas Voeckler had a good Tour de France and he raced, for example. It was also a 10-day race so you had to be strong just to finish but I was still chasing my first victory as a pro and I wanted to win so badly. I was still a neo and had come close so many times. It was also special because I'd chosen to ride for FDJ because of Marc Madiot. He was the most motivated team manager that I spoke to before signing a contract and he'd also put together this lovely programme for me. It was also really clear from the outset that there was no doping on the team. They were one of the first teams to take that approach.
I also remember the scenes at the finish. Solliès-Ville was this small little town and there weren't that many people around but everyone on the team was super happy. Vaugrenard came into the team with me and Madiot said from the start that he would test us on different terrains during our first year and that we would be working for others, but at Avenir we were given our own chances.

Paris-Tours 2008

This is on my list because it was my first Classic win. I had been close a few times and had won a stage of the Dauphiné by five minutes and taken Omloop. Again, this is a really hard choice. At the Dauphiné I had the yellow jersey and was riding against the big guys like Landis, Valverde and Leipheimer. I was leading them and was still in yellow after the long TT, which meant that I climbed Mont Ventoux in the yellow jersey. But Paris-Tours is on my list because it was a Classic. And back in that time it was still a very prestigious WorldTour race. It's not like that anymore but it used to be part of the World Cup and was 260 kilometres.
When I was a young kid I would always watch the Classics and I used to love that World Cup jersey. It wasn't the rainbow jersey but it was still special and it meant a lot to me as a child. I grew up hoping to wear it one day but a few years before I turned pro they scrapped the whole World Cup project. I think the UCI have maybe given too much importance now to the stage racers, so the one-day riders, like me, have nothing really left.

But that win in Paris-Tours was planned to perfection. I was rooming with Mickael Delage and the night before we drew up our tactics and carefully plotted our idea. He was to attack and then I was to follow when the race got serious. During the race he attacked and was joined by three other riders. On the last climb I countered a move from Oscar Friere and Pippo Pozzato. I went full-gas through the corners and was shouting to Delage, 'wait, wait, I'm coming'. With around three kilometres to go he worked for me and did around 1.5km on the front for me. When it came to the sprint I was pretty confident but there was some stress because my gears weren't working properly. My 11 wasn't working but I made it to the front in the sprint. I was worried that someone would come over the top of me but I kicked again, and I found the 11 sprocket. That gave me another couple of bike lengths and the win was mine.
This was a really important race and victory for me. Earlier in the year I'd confirmed that I would be leaving FDJ at the end of the season and this was my last chance to win something big for them, and with them. It was my first Classic but my last win for them. I had been on that team for several years and developed as a rider and a person there. It was a really emotional and special day.

Belgian National Championships 2011, road race

I think I was fourth at junior level, second at under 23, and four times second as a pro. I was so close but never won, despite being incredibly motivated. In 2011, on a course that didn't really suit me because it was flat, I managed to find a way of attacking and holding on for the win.

Sometimes as a rider, you know you're going to win when the course suits you. There are also times when you think you're going to win because the course suits you but for whatever reason you fall short. In this case I didn't think I could win, even though I was on top form. I still gave it everything because I knew that the Tour de France was a week later and that it would be incredible to win a stage in the race while wearing the national champion's jersey. The first stage of the Tour that year finished at Mont des Alouettes Les Herbiers. I knew that from the course profile I had a chance and eventually I did both, winning the nationals and then the first stage of the Tour.

But wearing the national jersey for me was incredible. I felt like I was always representing my country. In Belgium, cycling is special sport, right up there with football, and the culture is something close to people's hearts. Taking that jersey, everyone then knows you're a champion and, after coming so close so many times, to finally win it meant the world to me.
I remember at the team meeting before the race, I had the form but I said to my teammates 'if you want to do your own race I completely understand'. I didn't ask for any help but in the finale the guys all came to me and said that they would work for me. We won as a team, and there were only four or five of us.

Il Lombardia 2010

The Worlds win changed my life but so did Lombardia. It was in the rain, I was wearing dossard number one because I was the defending champion, and I can honestly say that it was the hardest day of my life on the bike.

It was a lovely battle with Michele Scarponi, too, and last week when we raced through his town at Tirrreno-Adriatico I was reminded of the day we competed against each other. It brought back a lot of memories for me. We rode together that day, and it was one of those days where you leave all your energy on the road. It was what cycling should be about, beautiful battles and going deep. I've never gone that hard. I remember I gapped him at one point but he fought back and we ended up doing the final climb together. He was digging in but I just managed to crack him before the summit. I did the last four or five kilometres on my own.

The win meant that I finished the year inside the top three riders in the world and I took a lot of pride in being one of the top three riders in the sport.

Liège-Bastogne-Liège 2011

I knew that, unless my chain dropped in the sprint, I would win. When I crossed the line, I had no idea what to do so I just put my fingers to my lips. It was a mixture of happiness and pride. Liège is my home race and I think I had done it six or seven times. Just racing Liège for the first time felt like a win because you know the roads and everyone is there and you can pick people out in the crowd. I remember saying that I would swap all my wins for a Liège title because it was the one I wanted the most. Also, winning those four races in a row was something that had never been done before. Not even Merckx did that!
What stood out, though, during that period, was the pressure. I could feel it rising up every day and people were coming to the hotel where I was staying with the team and the numbers just became bigger and bigger. There was more and more media, great expectations, and it was hard to keep focus. Everyone was expecting me to win and there was huge amount of pressure on me. I felt that if I didn't win it would have been a disaster, and that people would have forgotten my previous three wins.

When I saw the Schlecks attacking I thought it was great because everyone until that point was watching me. The moves from the Schlecks were doing my job for me. I sat on Andy's wheel and we caught all the guys from the break one by one. I think Van Avermaet followed for a few metres and then on Saint Nic I could see that Frank wanted to attack but he didn't have the legs. He went around a corner and he made a mistake by taking the outside line. I cut the corner and was immediately on his wheel. My next move was to put him under pressure so I put in a counter attack and this time Andy followed me. I could hear him on the radio, and they were clearly panicking. I was scared that Frank would attack when he came back but I could just about understand when he said to Andy 'stay here and I'll ride for you'. I knew then that Franck would work for Andy but in the sprint Andy started pulling, and Frank was on my wheel. I thought there might be an attack in the final 500 metres but I started to sprint with 175 metres to go.
That night I did the Belgian media events but when I drove home there were 5,000 people waiting for me. I think I was just coming to terms with what I had done and then saw the huge crowds. It's not often you can enjoy something like that. After all the expectation and pressure, it was just incredible.
Sport for me is all about emotions and the emotions you can give to other people. This is why I have chosen these five races. When I speak to fans and they tell me that I've given them joy and that they've followed my career, you can't help but appreciate that. I think for me, making people happy is more important than winning.

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